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Arnold Klein


Several learned translators of the Phaedrus agree that the dialogue is pervaded by a “tone of light irony;” but tone is a fictitious entity, and irony a mutable term, the bearing of which varies with the total complexus of coordinates that together specify the discourse in which it occurs. Thus irony may pertain to the limitations of perspective, as in What Maisie Knew; to the lability of states supposed permanent, as in The Merchant of Venice; to the confusion of accident and essence, as in Culture and Anarchy; or to the reader’s taking as unmeant, or as only partly meant, statements that are literally and eternally meant as true—as in the Phaedrus. The irony in the last case is on the reader, and far from being light, it tends to be crushing. But before describing some aspects of such irony, which I propose to call locheic, from the Greek for “lying in wait,” and going on to consider briefly two more examples of it, I want to look at a crux in the Phaedrus that is typical of those statements in which Socrates is presumed to be “ironical.”

When asked by Phaedrus if his remarks immediately following Lysias’s speech are in jest, Socrates says “Do I seem to you to be joking and not deeply serious?” To this question many would answer, with Phaedrus, “Yes,” for joking is exactly what Socrates seems to them to be doing. And after all, what “head” could be less “divine” than Phaedrus’s, and what speech less god-intoxicated than Lysias’s cynical catalogue of worldly advantages? But in connecting Phaedrus to the divine with practically every word of those remarks, Socrates is simply recognizing what, to Plato, is a literal truth. Phaedrus is a divine head, or source, not merely in the obvious sense in which beauty is such a source, or in which having a soul that once followed in the train of a god is, or in having, as Phaedrus, as a beautiful boy, does, the god Love as his special guardian. Phaedrus is divine because, in the dialogue, everything in the world is a mode through which the divine holds commerce with the human, and thus potentially, if rightly understood, a mode by which humans can ascend to the divine. Love and rhetoric are two such modes—which, by the way, is why they together unify the Phaedrus. But there are many others: the plane tree is a shrine, called explicitly a place of “coming down,” and the ground about it is littered with figurines; nymphs, Pan and “other nearby gods” haunt the spot; an altar to Boreas is a little ways off, marking a particular instance of such commerce; the cicadas chirping overhead report to the Muses. Now about the divine1 Socrates never jokes—he was put to death for his seriousness in such matters—and he is not joking here. Nor is he joking when, later, he disclaims any art of speech, for he really means that everything creditable that came out of his mouth comes from the divinities of the place or from the Muses. But if everything in the Phaedrus is at least potentially a mode of commerce with the divine, and about the divine Socrates always means what he says, the question then becomes why any readers would think he was joking. What is the source of their obviously mistaken imputation of irony, and “light” irony at that, to this deeply serious figure?

We could answer, metaphysically, that it comes from the presumption on the part of such irony-mongering readers that appearances are the only realities, and indeed Socrates does ask if he seems to be joking. Such a presumption denies the reality of the supersensible altogether, and would bring about here, as everywhere in Plato, not just error, but that special error that is constituted by the inversion of the truth. But in terms of the Phaedrus specifically such a presumption takes the form of denying the reality of the divine in all its forms—of presuming that the gods and the Muses in the dialogue are no more to be taken seriously than is the story of Boreas or the “myth” of Thoth. Now, this presumption renders the dialogue unintelligible, for, like a “bad butcher,” it separates things that belong together—love and rhetoric, for example, thus raising the pseudo-problem of the “unity” of the Phaedrus—and, closer to our purpose, converts, or rather, inverts literal statements into “ironical” ones—and that, irrespectively of whether the gods or the Muses “really” exist2. For the irony of the situation lies precisely in that, by imputing such ironic intent, and content, to statements meant literally, and, by the lights of the dialogue, literally true, such readers inadvertently reveal their own imperviousness to the divine that stands before them, and their own misapprehension of the discourse that would enlighten them about it, all the while they are pronouncing confidently that that very discourse is, concerning the divine, “ironic.”3

But, of course, there is the matter of Plato’s supposed irony. The crux of the argument here is the disparagement of writing that occurs toward the end of the dialogue, for (this mistake goes) Plato is himself writing, so this disparagement must be “ironical.” But throughout the discourse everything has been shown to exist both in a “left-hand,” or worldly, version, and in a “right-hand” version that conduces to commerce with the divine: two kinds of love, two kinds of rhetoric, of madness, of self-possession, etc., and here we have two kinds of writing, Lysias’s and Plato’s. And, lest anyone think that Socrates must be ironical when he calls Phaedrus and his cohort “young sages,” which they are so clearly not, there are two kinds of σοφοι in the dialogue, too, the νεοι and the παλαιοι.4

No, the irony that Plato is, not employing, but occasioning, is the kind of irony that, as I said, is on the reader, on her inadvertent self-revelation of her intellectual, philosophical and temperamental limitations;5 and I say “occasioning” because the act of misunderstanding by which the reader betrays such limitations is something the reader herself must commit: all Plato, or any writer in this line, can do is so to treat his subject that those impervious to its truth will misapprehend it in this self-exposing, self-indicting way. In this country of positive thinkers many would now ask why any writer would go to the trouble of baiting this trap. The question, though, reveals—ironically—the presumption on the part of such democratically-minded Americans that all writing must be undertaken for the betterment of “the reader,” as if all readers were equally liable to mistake wisdom for “irony.” But not all writing is so undertaken; and as for Plato, we should never forget, what he never forgets, that the Socrates to whom many readers impute “irony,” in this case, unseriousness as to the closeness of the gods, is the same Socrates whom the Athenians put to death for impiety. That pall hangs over many of Plato’s dialogues. Their misunderstanding of Socrates or of Plato as employing a “tone of light irony” thus allies impercipient readers not only, in their denial of the supersensible, to the horrible Lysias, but to the impercipient jurors who condemned “the best and wisest and most righteous of men”; and that is what I meant when I said that such irony tends to be crushing.

A brief glance at two other ironists in this locheic line and I have done.

In Bartleby the Scrivener Melville so cunningly contrives the presentation of the narrator’s values that many readers not only miss the actual perversity of those values, but even outgo the narrator in their allegiance to them, and call for Bartleby’s summary dismissal. No alternative presents itself to such readers, because these perverse values are identical to those readers’ own, an identity in perversity whose existence they inadvertently reveal by allowing themselves to view the situation without objection or deviation through the narrator’s eyes. 6 The values that the narrator and such readers share 7 are, roughly, capitalistic inversions of Christian ones—an inversion which exchanges, in one way or another, the New Testament for the Old: money, not charity; selfishness, not love; ginger nuts—that is, the bread of affliction consumed in the house of bondage (the narrator does a “snug business in rich men’s bonds”)—not the bread of life; the (dead) letter of the (old) law that killeth, not the spirit of the new law of love; everlasting shade, not the light come into the darkness; grub, eaten in the Tombs within walls of “Egyptian thickness,” not manna, no less milk and honey in the promised land, this last having particular reference to America, a reference which is further particularized in the narrator’s crossing Canal Street, on, no less, election day, and going toward the Tombs, not emerging from it,  and walking down the “Mississippi of Broadway,” which broad way leadeth, of course, to the great fire—to name just these. Any nominal Christian, or any normal American, then, who allows her perspective to coincide with, or outgo the narrator’s in perversity, is self-convicted of being the very opposite of a Christian, and of betraying the American promise.

In the concluding poem of the Lyrisches Intermezzo the poet calls for a great coffin, so large as to require the services of twelve giants to drag the bier, and drag it where? To the sea, of course, for

Solchem großen Sarge

Gebührt ein großes Grab.


Wißt ihr warum der Sarg wohl

So groß und schwer mag sein?

Ich legt auch meine Liebe

Und meinen Schmerz hinein.

The reader who declares the poet ironical here, on the self-certain basis that no one’s sufferings in love could be so great, only reveals the shallowness of her own heart, so incapable is it of even imagining undergoing such sufferings and losing such love.


…There are, thus, plots of action, plots of character, and plots of thought. In the first, the synthesizing principle is a completed change, gradual or sudden, in the situation of the protagonist, determined and effected by character and thought…; in the second, the principle is a completed process of change in the moral character of the protagonist, precipitated or molded by action, and made manifest in both it and in thought and feeling…; in the third, the principle is a completed process of change in the thought of the protagonist and consequently in his feelings, conditioned and directed by character and action…

                                                                                       —R.S. Crane

The first of these plots, in which character and thought are synthesized by action, is, of course, familiar to us from Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy in the Poetics; and his enlarging the idea of plot to include plots of character and of thought lets Crane take account of a much wider field of mimetic literature. This is excellently done, and profound; but one, two, three…where is the fourth of the Aristotelian factors, language? That language, and even one of its particular aspects or possibilities, can serve the determining and synthesizing function served here by action, character and thought, is the hypothesis I wish to pursue in what follows, by way of a glance—it will hardly deserve so grand a title as an examination, no less an analysis—at the structural role played by the transitive metaphors in Webster’s dramatic poem The White Devil. As we shall see, this pursuit will involve the reformulation of some of Aristotle’s and Crane’s terms, and the biting, along the way, of not a few aesthetic bullets. But should the hypothesis prove out, we may find that the poem submits to an order that has so far escaped the intelligence of those of its critics who have authoritatively pronounced Webster’s a genius  directed toward “chaos.”

I call metaphors8 transitive, any, some or all of whose terms recur in other metaphors, themselves transitive. In a work organized by such metaphors, all of them, taken together, constitute a total complexus in which each metaphor recurs either directly or through others (hence “transitive”) in all the rest. I say “recur” not because the complexus begins with some one metaphor and develops sequentially (although there might be works in which this is the case), but because our apprehension of the complexus must begin somewhere, though it may begin anywhere, and proceed somehow, though innumerable pathways are open to it. But wherever it begins, and however it proceeds, our apprehension of the complexus is adequate only when all of its intrications are grasped together as forming one whole.

To elaborate the total metaphorical complexus of The White Devil would require an essay longer than the poem itself. But to render my case for their structuralizing function, not proven (for what would proof look like here?), but plausible, requires me only to trace a few metaphors far enough to establish their transitivity and to specify somewhat of the character and coloration.

                                               Your followers
Have swallowed you like mummia, and being sick
With such unnatural and horrid physic
Vomit you up in the kennel—

That physic makes people sick recurs directly in the funerals that cost doctors their credit, the medicine, deadlier than stibium that Flamineo plans to compound, the pills the Doctor shoots into a man’s guts, and the plague in physic 9 . That the ‘pothecary stuff in question is mummia, that is, a human body reduced to powder, and that such stuff is devilish, lets the body recur in countless Devil metaphors, as when Vittoria’s beauty is called the Devil in crystal, and in poison metaphors, as when Flamineo’s deadly medicine is compounded (and thus recurs in pounded in a mortar) out of heads, and Vittoria— her body particulated like mummia through separate mention of her eyes, brow, hair, heart and stomachis a poison’d mineral. That mummia is swallowed and vomited up recurs, as a down and up process, in Fortune’s wheel, and wheel, as an endless and non-progressive round, in whirlpool and whirlwind, and in the particulating action of the windmill. Finally—or rather, to cut the short survey of Webster’s recurrences even shorter—swallow and vomit, as a self-undoing process, recurs in politic ignorance, unsociably social, envenomed pothecary, the advances that infect, the enclosures that make for rebellion and the delight that doth itself devour.

Now, the transitivity of the metaphors here is obviously such that we could have begun with windmill, say, and very shortly have reached mummia, or, to put it generally, the intrications of the metaphorical complexus are such that any one of its members can lead to all the others. It follows that the complexus and its member intrications are a factor in the poem that cannot be formally determined or synthesized by the actions of the characters—or even by any one arc of action, however interesting—any character itself, or any character’s thought, as no transitive metaphor, qua transitive, can be determined by any one situation, or by any character thinking any one thought, because, qua transitive, its significance lies beyond its immediate use; nor can the total complexus of such metaphors, qua total, be formally determined by any part. So the language of the poem, in this, its most lexical aspect, cannot be a means, the end of which is determined by some other factor in the poem, nor the matter to which those other factors give form.

But I was hypothesizing more than this: not only that the language is undetermined by action, character and thought, but is determinative of them; not only that the complexus of transitive metaphors is a whole, but that its unity is such as to unify all the other factors. And if we look a little more closely at how transitivity is achieved in The White Devil, a principle operating uniformly in the metaphors and synthetically on action, character and thought, indeed emerges. Consider the recurrence of amorous whirlwind in a deadly vapor in a Spaniard’s fart, and of painted meat in counterfeit jewel. In the first pair, the recurrence of the attributes amorous and deadly is established as a recurrence through the likeness of the things whirlwind and vapor; in the second, the recurrence of the things meat and jewel, through the likeness of the attributes painted and counterfeit. Now, the principle that is indifferent to the distinction of attributes and things10 —so indifferent, indeed, as to identify, as with a few further transitions the poem does, so insubstantial a thing as a fart with so obdurate a thing as a jewelis precisely the Democritean principle of atoms and void, or as Webster puts it, atomies and nothing, proclaimed in the first scene, and implied metaphorically throughout11 , for on that principle, any thing, however apparently substantial, is in fact an accident of atoms and void, and so too are its accidents, however closely appertinent. That principle makes for, or exemplifies, a universe both metaphorical and transitive, as on it, every thing, or quality, however apparently individuated, in being reducible to the same material substrate, is like, in fact at the same time, is really, every other thing or quality. The question, essentially biographical or psychological, as to whether in The White Devil a philosophical atomism has expressed itself in a poetic method of transitive metaphor, or that poetic method discovered in philosophical atomism its rationale12 is immaterial to our present purpose, which is purely formal. However that question is answered, we have only to show, having already shown its independence of them, how the metaphorical complexus can subordinate and synthesize action, character and thought.

Implicit in that complexus is a distinction between accidental differences and real sameness: as the poem puts it, the difference between two bricks, one on the top of a turret, the other in the bottom of a well, is mere chance; in reality, both are all made of one clay. To regard apparent differences—of status, wealth, beauty, honor, family, religion, and so on—as meaningful, and to pursue or uphold them, is, in so far as the differences are accidental, to hang manacl’d on the lowest felly/Of Fortune’s wheel, and in so far as they are apparent, and thus unreal, to let go the meat to catch the shadow, to fall a-dreaming, to invent [one’s] own ruinThis busy trade of life is constituted by such mistaken pursuits: busy because committed to ever-changing accidents, and a trade because, as we shall see, its exponents exchange rest for pain; but the this here is particularly significant, as it refers not only to the human condition in general but to the whole set of carryings-on that comprise the poem. For all the actions in The White Devil, far from being “chaotic,” are predicated on the same intellectual mistake: all the characters in their several ways take shadows that walk up and down to be significant and substantial entities. Now, requisite for that mistake to be made are characters who are liable to make it: and, indeed, the characters are variously proud, greedy, lustful, virtuous, motherly, devout and so on. But further: for their actions to prove mistaken—to no purpose, as the poem puts it—the characters must be incapable of correcting themselves. This presents a nice problem for the poet, for the truth of the metaphorical complexus—the very index of their error, that is—cannot be articulated except by the mistaken characters themselves13; for on its own terms, The White Devil can admit no character to whom this busy trade of life appears, what it really is, most vain, for such a one would, in finding rest, have no place in the world of the poem, where all seek pain by pain. The problem is solved by making the characters—what must seem “chaotic” when looked at apart from the metaphorical complexus— disequilibrious, specifically as touchy as cats; in terms of the poem, so distracted by the illusion of the moment as to miss the import of the words in which they express their passions. This formal subordination to language of character and action explains another apparently “chaotic” element of the poem, the numerous scenes, constituting almost the whole work, in which characters fly off the handle in language of miraculous richness—I mean scenes like the quarrels between Flamineo and Brachiano, and between Vittoria and Brachiano, which go on for some time before coming to nothing. Indeed, the proportion—or, from the point of view of action or characterization, the striking disproportion—of talk to action in the poem is explicable only through the optic of transitive metaphor, and must appear “chaotic” without it. For talk requires occasions for talking, however collateral to the action those be. The superfluous banter afforded by the (non)characters of the Doctor, the Conjuror and the Lawyer; the incredible length of the trial scene, whose conclusion is forgone; the long colloquies between Lodovico and Monticelso and between Flamineo and Camillo, to name just those, which (again) come to nothing; all these, contrasted with the telescoping of episodes that would be considered crucial from the point of view of the action, such as the death of Isabella and the marriage of Vittoria and Brachiano, not to mention the apparent irrelevance of the papal election, are intelligible on no other grounds than these, that a complexus of transitive metaphors requires talk for its circumstantial elaboration, but is indifferent to character development and to action.

But is such a complexus a plot? After all, doesn’t the concept of plot involve, as it does for Aristotle and for Crane, a change of some kind, in the vicissitudes of which an audience becomes emotionally involved? But here we come to the first of our promised reformulations and the second of our aesthetic bullets—a harder bullet to bite, perhaps, than our first footnoted one. For plot, as conceived by those masters, is successive, and a plot of transitive metaphors such as I have hypothesized and, I hope, vindicated, is not: all the intrications of the complexus that animates and integrates The White Devil, reducing, as we have seen them do, the nominally successive scenes and the seemingly individuated characters to its pattern, recur concurrently and a-temporally. In this sense, The White Devil, though superficially a dramatic, is essentially a dialogic lyric poem, for it is the specific vocation of lyric poetry in all its forms—and of other arts, too, in any medium, so far as they achieve lyric character—to register and express complexes of significance that are instantaneous, or, if you like, outside of time. The only relevant changes in such a plot as here hypothesized are the provisional changes in our apprehension as we arrive at the properly lyric moment when the total complexus, in itself and in its synthesizing function, is grasped imaginatively at once—a change having no more to do with succession in time than does a switch of visual gestalt.

But an instantaneous apprehension leaves no room for the vicissitudes of action and the developments of character and outlook in which, according to Aristotle and Crane, and to many others less distinguished for power of mind, the audience becomes emotionally engaged. Just so: it indeed leaves no such room; and it is intrinsic to the proper apprehension of The White Devil, at least, that no such emotional engagement occur. For only an audience that shared their erroneous view of reality, as revealed by themselves and their actions, could care about the characters and their fates; an audience that apprehended the poet’s, or—for it makes no difference which, as we will see—the poem’s view, as elaborated in the metaphors, would stand aloof to all that. So corresponding to the two views of reality comprehended in The White Devil are two audiences for it: the mistaken one—abetted perhaps by the blundering cuts made by stupid theatrical directors, who are legion—that takes the work for what it is so often called, a tragedy, and the real, or proper one, that sees it for what it really is: a farce—a work, that is, towards whose meaningless complications the right response is indifference.

But—it will no doubt be objected—indifference is still an emotional response, still an engagement of the kind it is commonly supposed art works are purposely designed by artists to effect in audiences. But it is not the least among the glories of lyric poetry that it surmounts the common-sense— and, these days, commonplace— distinction of artist, art work, and audience implicit, or rather, explicit, in the objection. That distinction may pertain to other kinds of art, and certainly does pertain to all forms of popular pseudo-art, but its terms have to be completely reformulated if they are to bear in any way on lyric works such as Webster’s. For in lyric poetry, and by participation, in all works possessing lyric character, that distinction becomes an identity: in a properly lyric apprehension, the apprehending mind, the poem or work it apprehends, and the mind of the poet or artist that poem or work imaginatively expresses, become reflexively identical. This identity may be an even harder aesthetic bullet to bite than our first two, but it is justified in this case by the specific intelligibility of The White Devil itself. For the emotion imaginatively expressed in that poem, and by the right audience imaginatively apprehended, is precisely the emotion proper to its guiding principle and poetic method: ataraxia.

[1] Or about anything, as everything can be the occasion for dialectic to take us from becoming to being, to put it metaphysically. But this is not the place to argue comprehensively that Socrates is never ironical.

[2] They do; or at least the Muses do. But I do not think my witness will prevail where Socrates’s hasn’t.

[3] Another instance of claiming to know what you don’t know.

[4] And, while we are obviating objections, two kinds of recantation: Socrates’s, made at the behest of his daimon, and involving the recollection of truths, and Lysias’s, to be made if the perpetually forgetful Phaedrus remembers to urge it on him, involving the rebalancing of periods to win more credit for—what Socrates continuously disclaims—his “authorship.”

[5] And not just with respect to the divine. I would not have believed it, but some college teachers caution their students that Socrates has, not a deeply serious purpose, but merely an “ironic interest” in hearing Phaedrus read Lysias’s speech. Such teachers inadvertently advertise their indifference to the fate of the very young people, with the cure of whose souls they have been entrusted. For throughout the dialogue, which begins with Socrates asking Phaedrus “Where are you going?”—as throughout the Protagoras and the Gorgiashis young companion’s future direction in life is Socrates’s principal preoccupation; and indeed, Plato’s interest in the predicament of young people, which is almost unique in Western philosophy, is the source of the spell he casts over students when they first encounter him, if, that is, their teachers have not taken good care to insulate them against it. In the Phaedrus, the divine and the educational—or, to put it more broadly, the elucidation of the truth and the illumination of the mind—are coincident throughout, but come together most signally at the end of Socrates’s speech, when he prays that the god may “turn” Lysias toward philosophy, and with him, Phaedrus, who up to then has been going “in two directions.”—Come to think of it, “inadvertently advertise” may be the wrong way to put it, it being a point of pride among some American academics to dismiss teaching, which Socrates so often failed at—and, in their cases, fails at still—as “something anybody can do.”

[6] This, and not merely a few turns of phrase, is what Melville really gets from Lamb.

[7] Or rather, that the narrator at points is uncertain about, but that such readers are everywhere very self-certain about.

[8] I use the term in the broadest sense, to designate metaphoric function in general.

[9] And elsewhere—a phrase that should be added to each of the sentences in this paragraph.

[10] And thus, to the distinction of nouns and predicates. Hence the poet’s predilection for compounds such as sawpit, dunghill, hour-glass, choke-pear, wormwood, sweetmeats, hat-band, blood-hound, and so on.

[11] Atoms in particles, mummia, caviare, ounces, elements, scruples, groats, bubbles, suds, powder, void in numerous shadow metaphors.

[12] That the second alternative is undoubtedly correct is the first of our aesthetic bullets. The coloration given by the poet to all the members of the transitive complexus—for which “futility” is as good a name as any— is not deduced from philosophical atomism but imparted to it.  There is no necessary connection between atoms (to Lucretius, ever-fecund) and the poem’s falling to pieces, or between the physical void and there is nothing. We are dealing here, as usual in poetry, with a sensibility that does not distinguish itself from its objects, and expresses itself in a language which, as Collingwood says, is not a pre-existing means to the communication of already formulated thoughts, as common sense has it, but is generated along with the emotion it expresses.

[13] Florence, who dismisses the difference of the two bricks, is not only in disguise when he does so, but is busy avenging a slight to his status.